Sunday, June 28, 2009

Find Me a Villain

Miss Lemon was just ruminating on the insular English village. One doesn't find anything quite like it in other English speaking parts of the world, like, say, America or New Zealand -- does one?

With names like Hanging on the Wold, Bishop's Cleeve and Little Tipping, there's a netherworld charm to these places that so stubbornly resist the modern tread of time. They are places where, not so many years ago, one had to sort out in advance which neighbors were or were not on the 'phone. It hardly mattered in any case, as the neighbors are never more than a few hundred yards' walk away.

They are places that, even today, some English know only through the novels of Agatha Christie. At least that's the idea of village life held by Nina Crowther, the protagonist of Margaret Yorke's excellent mystery called Find Me a Villain (1983).

The Mrs. Crowther in question is a lifelong Londoner, and she's just been chucked by her philandering husband. Having no profession or training beyond housekeeping, she goes to the village of Netherton St. Mary to act as houseminder for Priscilla and Leonard Blunt, owners of a stately village pile called, simply, The Hall.

Rivaling its stateliness is the nearby Manor, owned by Col. and Mrs. Jowett. The two families' lives have intertwined over the years in a manner akin to Virginia creeper and village stone masonry.

Lacking the village parallels that prove so useful to Miss Marple as she susses out the villains in St. Mary Mead, Mrs. Crowther hardly knows what to make of the requisite eccentricities of her neighbors. Col. Jowett, retired from the Army and now a painter of dubious talent, wanders off from time to time, sometimes forgetting where or, indeed, who he is.

Heather Jowett is earthy and dotty, known to wander the village fields randomly planting bulbs and clearing brush. Then there's the Blunts' gardener, Dan Fenton, retired from an unspecified career in civil service, who makes frequent and unexplained trips to London.

Margaret Yorke, a former librarian and chair of the Crime Writers' Association, deftly evokes the mood of classic village mystery. The Hall, for example, is too distant from the village centre to receive delivery of a daily paper. And during an especially violent gale, Mrs. Crowther loses her telephone connection.

Alone with herself for the first time in perhaps twenty years, Mrs. Crowther quickly begins to suspect that her kooky neighbors perhaps aren't quite as harmless as they first appeared. Meanwhile, when the telephone is in order, Nina receives a series of calls in which the person at the other end utters nothing but a baleful sigh. Add to that, the disappearance and murder of several young runaway girls, two bodies of whom turn up near Netherton St. Mary.

The title of this suspenseful and moody novel, Miss Lemon begs her readers to note, is ironic. For the last place Nina Crowther expects to find a villain is in the sleepy English village she supposed would provide refuge from the rough sea of urban existence.

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